Artist: Paul Cézanne
Title: O Negro Cipião (Scipio, the Negro)
Collection: Museu de Arte de São Paulo, Brazil
This painting was produced by the infamous French impressionist Paul Cézanne. It represents an African model supposedly named ‘Scipio’ whom Cézanne met at the Académie Suisse – an alternative arts school in Paris that became a creative hub for the Impressionist group. This painting originally belonged to Claude Monet, who described it as a ‘fragment of raw power.’
“At first glance, there appears to be a certain layered delicacy of tone and an almost empathetic subtlety of figurative illumination in Cezanne’s depiction of the chiselled black male form of Scipio. ‘The Negro’ (whom I am inclined to read within a New World historical context), here appears not as an easily dismissable object of caricature, but is conveyed moreso as the intense subject, whose humanity Cezanne quietly makes apparent by capturing the detail of his strong yet seemingly wearied form in the moment of gracefully poised submission to fatigue. It feels symbolic too that Scipio the Negro is in form, as poignantly visible as he is simultaneously obscured. The broad expanse of his naked back draws the viewers gaze with immediacy, yet his face in shadowy profile lends a certain mystery to his identity.
It’s tempting to read the details of form in Cezanne’s painting as a mild allegory of sorts, perhaps probing ideological antagonisms between New World and Old at the peak of escalating movements towards liberation within the colonies of the old Empire.”
-Jan Asante, London, UK
Black male subjects either nude or partially nude, with face obscured, was a popular art subject in the 1800s in both European and American art. The subtle dehumanization and sexualization of the people depicted in these works reflects the attitude of the post-colonial Western European mindset; reducing human beings to bodies in media was an important part of the justification process that retroactively erased previous roles Europeans of African descent had played in bygone eras.